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A Case for Public Engagement
Thursday, 03 June 2010 09:18

A Case for Public Engagement in Public Schools:
Why community support matters

Democracy's strength lies in the ability of people to understand and participate in decisions that affect them, their families and their society. As Americans, we look to our system of public education to sustain and reflect the promise of democracy by giving all children, regardless of race or class or language ability, access to high-quality education. Educating all of our children to high standards, however, is a collective responsibility and one that requires ongoing engagement and support of the American public.

Give Kids Good Schools, Public Education Network's (PEN) national campaign to engage Americans in supporting and improving their public schools, is built on the premise that public engagement is necessary to achieve and sustain quality public schools. In order to fulfill the promise of a quality public education for every child, Americans at every level must be part of the decisions and processes that impact public schools.

Quality Public Schools - A Collective Responsibility
Public Engagement - A Working Definition
Public Engagement Works

Quality Public Schools - A Collective Responsibility
The quality of America's public schools has a direct impact on each and every one of us. Whether we are parents, neighbors, business owners, or homeowners, each of us has a stake in the quality of our public schools.

*Nine in 10 U.S. students attend public schools. Each school day, 48 million students spend their time inside America's 95,726 public schools.

*Public schools are the center of communities. Public schools are inextricably linked to the communities they serve and are among the few remaining centers of civic and social life. Home values, crime rates and local economies have all been linked to the quality of local public schools.

*America depends on public schools for economic success. America's public schools are charged with providing the next generation of taxpayers, voters, employees, business leaders, parents and more with the solid foundation of skills and knowledge they need to succeed in work and life.

Public Engagement - A Working Definition
Decisions about public schools are often left to administrators, teachers and school boards. While these groups represent critical knowledge and expertise, every community member has a role to play to ensure that public schools are the best they can be.

Public engagement in public schools has been defined as "a purposeful effort, starting in either the school system or the community, to build a collaborative constituency for change and improvement in schools." Quite simply, public engagement encompasses efforts to bring the community together in a meaningful way, to be part of the decisions and processes that impact public schools.

Meaningful public engagement in public schools reflects the will and needs of the community, and it requires initiative from the community and openness from school and district leadership. The work of PEN and Local Education Funds across the country has shown meaningful public engagement to include:

*Strategic planning sessions, town hall meetings or community conversations. Open dialogues foster trust and collaboration, shared goals, and strategies.

*Collaboration between schools, service-providers, businesses, etc. Shared resources and collaboration enhance learning, strengthen connection, and produce mutually beneficial results for students, schools and the community.

*Public information-sharing on school performance. Communities must be informed of and understand school performance data in order to understand and support student and schools goals and strategies.

*Community participation in school board meetings. In most communities, school boards represent a school district's decision-making body and need input from the community to inform and support decisions.

*Communication with elected officials and policymakers. Elected officials must connect with and seek input from the public. At the same time, the public must communicate with elected officials to voice their concerns and support.

*Voting in school board, local and federal elections. An individual's informed vote is a powerful way to set the local and national agenda for education.

Public Engagement Works
Engaged communities create an environment where schools and students succeed.

*In Mobile, Alabama, 48 communities came together to develop a strategic plan to address the district's underperforming schools. Hundreds of community members showed up at a local school board meeting to show their support for the plan, which was unanimously approved. Today, Mobile County schools have made significant gains in reading and mathematics - some as much as 30 points - and an additional 19 schools achieved "Clear Status" as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

*When test scores and reading levels in Baltimore, Maryland's lowest performing schools were in danger of falling behind the city's average, the Baltimore City Public School System joined with local organizations, parents and citizens to implement Achievement First, a program that emphasizes family and community involvement. Parents and families were encouraged to read with their children, review their assignments, and compare them to a standards guide. Additionally, many community and after-school programs were re-directed to focus on literacy. Involving parents and the community gave students the chance to practice good learning skills outside the classroom. After three years, Baltimore City schools saw scores increase to twice the city average.

*In Cleveland Heights, Ohio, the community came together to address low achievement at one of its largest high schools. Through open forums and dialogue, local citizens and non-profit organizations established local governance boards to inform and create a strategy to support the school. Today, graduation rates have increased and the state officials have changed the school's designation from "Academic Watch" to "Effective."

*When 98 percent of students in the inner-city areas of Austin, Texas, were classified as "at risk" by the state, parents, school administrators, and community members decided that the best way to reconnect student drop-outs to school was to create a program that adapted to their immediate needs. Garza Independent High School was created with a focus on career exploration and provides workshops on college preparation, life skills, financial aid for college, accessing online job listings, and small business. None of these services would be possible without the partnerships formed by the school with Austin-area organizations such as the Police Department and Community in Schools. To date, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have highlighted Garza as a model in violence prevention and the Austin Chronicle has named Garza "The Best Public School Model" in Austin.

*In Paterson, New Jersey, and communities across the state, individuals and organizations took action to improve their schools following the Abbot decisions - a series of major state court decisions that mandated funding for 30 high-poverty urban school districts, student programs, long-range facilities plans, and financing for school construction and renovation. Following the Abbot decisions, local school board and community members met with state policymakers and joined state policy conversations to discuss their needs. Paterson residents participated in strategic planning for community schools and helped to develop a Community Schools Policy that was adopted unanimously by the Paterson Board of Education.

For more information about the importance of public engagement, and strategies to engage the public in public school reform and other efforts, see the resources below:

*Public Education Network's Taking Responsibility: Using Public Engagement to Reform Our Public Schools

*Policy Studies Associates' Citizen Mobilization and Community Institutions: The Public Education Network's Policy Initiatives

*Public Education Network's An Action Guide for Community and Parent Leaders: Using NCLB to Improve Student Achievement

*Public Education Network's Communities at Work: Strategic Interventions for Community Change

National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics. 2006.
Annenberg Institute for School Reform. 1997.



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